instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, May 05, 2007

It's not a good idea, it's just the law

On the one hand, I have an undergraduate degree in physics and a baptismal certificate in Christianity. I certainly value and accept the truths of both.

On the other hand, I stand by Spong's Law of Theophysical Asininity, which states:
Whenever a person appeals to quantum physics as the basis for a theological or religious principle, he is making an ass of himself.
So what am I to make of a book, sent to me by its publisher, titled The Physics of Christianity, in which Frank J. Tipler argues inter alia that
Jesus could have risen from the dead by making use of the baryon-annihilation process... We must gain control of this process in order to prevent the violation of unitarity in the far future, a violation that would destroy the universe if it occurred. By dying and rising again, Jesus not only paid the price for our sins but also gave us the knowledge to save the entire universe from destruction.
In one sentence: Spong's Law still holds.

Without getting into details, let me propose that there are two major problems with the book: its humorlessness and its intended audience.

I think the problem with most crackpot theories -- and make no mistake, that's what we're dealing with here -- is that they are proposed with too little humor. (I should mention that no one yet has managed to explain modern physics without appealing to a crackpot theory, and of course Christianity is itself based on the absurdity that God loves us enough to die for us, so the problem with this book isn't the mere presence of crackpottedness.)

It's not that Professor Tipler doesn't realize his are fringe ideas, it's that he doesn't account for that fact. Instead of writing, "I will continue to believe in the fundamental laws of physics even if doing so results in my professional death as a physicist," as he does in his conclusion, I think he should write something like, "I know these are some crazy ideas, but what if the universe is crazy?" Instead of a martyrly "here I stand" pose, a jesterly "join me in the fool's corner for a moment" might win a more sympathetic reading.

But then, who is it to whom he would be saying, "Join me for a moment"? His presentation of the physics is too tendentious and dogmatic to be accepted by people who know enough physics, and people who don't know enough physics can't critically evaluate his claims. Those who accept his claims uncritically are likely to wind up thinking they understand quantum mechanics better than professional physicists, when in fact all they understand is that most professional physicists disagree with Professor Tipler. (As for me, I'm in the position of knowing enough not to accept his claims uncritically, but not enough to pronounce definitively on each of them.)

Modern physics tells us the universe is a lot weirder than it appears. Christianity tell us that modern physics doesn't know the half of it. I think a great book could be written about the relationship between them, but The Physics of Christianity isn't it.

[Full disclosure: I only read up to page 27, then the concluding section, and a few bits here and there in between. This post isn't so much a book review as a comment on a book that didn't make it through my reading triage process.]